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Big-data analysis consists of searching for buried patterns that have some kind of predictive power. But choosing which “features” of the data to analyze usually requires some human intuition. In a database containing, say, the beginning and end dates of various sales promotions and weekly profits, the crucial data may not be the dates themselves but the spans between them, or not the total profits but the averages across those spans.

                MIT researchers aim to take the human element out of big-data analysis, with a new system that not only searches for patterns but designs the feature set, too. To test the first prototype of their system, they enrolled it in three data science competitions, in which it competed against human teams to find predictive patterns in unfamiliar data sets. Of the 906 teams participating in the three competitions, the researchers’ “Data Science Machine” finished ahead of 615.
 In two of the three competitions, the predictions made by the Data Science Machine were 94 percent and 96 percent as accurate as the winning submissions. In the third, the figure was a more modest 87 percent. But where the teams of humans typically labored over their prediction algorithms for months, the Data Science Machine took somewhere between two and 12 hours to produce each of its entries.
“We view the Data Science Machine as a natural complement to human intelligence,” says Max Kanter, whose MIT master’s thesis in computer science is the basis of the Data Science Machine. “There’s so much data out there to be analyzed. And right now it’s just sitting there not doing anything. So maybe we can come up with a solution that will at least get us started on it, at least get us moving.”

Between the lines

Kanter and his thesis advisor, Kalyan Veeramachaneni, a research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), describe the Data Science Machine in a paper that Kanter will present next week at the IEEE International Conference on Data Science and Advanced Analytics.
Veeramachaneni co-leads the Anyscale Learning for All group at CSAIL, which applies machine-learning techniques to practical problems in big-data analysis, such as determining the power-generation capacity of wind-farm sites or predicting which students are at risk for dropping out of online courses.
“What we observed from our experience solving a number of data science problems for industry is that one of the very critical steps is called feature engineering,” Veeramachaneni says. “The first thing you have to do is identify what variables to extract from the database or compose, and for that, you have to come up with a lot of ideas.”

In predicting dropout, for instance, two crucial indicators proved to be how long before a deadline a student begins working on a problem set and how much time the student spends on the course website relative to his or her classmates. MIT’s online-learning platform MITx doesn’t record either of those statistics, but it does collect data from which they can be inferred.

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